The appeal of “pickup” or “game” or “The Redpill” is a failure of education and socialization

Since posting “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?” and “Men are where women were 30 years ago?” I’ve gotten into a couple discussions about why Neil Strauss’s The Game is popular and why adjacent subjects like “pickup” and the “Redpill” have become more popular too. One friend wrote, “It’s so tedious to see how resentful men get—a subject much in the news lately because of the Santa Barbara shooting…”

That’s somewhat true, but underlying, longer-term trends are still worth examining. The world is more complex than it used to be in many respects, and that includes sex and dating. Until relatively recently—probably the late 60s / early 70s—it was common for most guys to marry a local girl, maybe straight out of high school, and marry a girl whose parents the guy probably knows and her parents probably know the guy’s. Parents, families, and religious authorities probably had a strong effect on what their children did, and a lot of men and women married as virgins. The dating script was relatively easy to follow and relatively many people paired early. In the 60s an explosion of divorces began, and that complicated matters in ways that are still being sorting out.

Today there are more hookups for a longer period of time and fewer universal scripts that everyone follows, or is supposed to be following. Instead, one sees a proliferation of possibilities, from the adventurous player—which is not solely a male role—to early marriage (though those early marriages tend to end in divorce).

Dating “inequality” has probably increased, since the top guys are certainly having a lot more sex than the median or bottom guys. To some extent high-status guys have always had more sex, but now “top” could mean dozens of partners at a relatively early age, and the numerical top is more readily available to guys who want it. In the old regime it was probably possible for almost everyone to find a significant other of some sort (and I think families had more sway and say). Now that may be harder, especially for guys towards the bottom who don’t want to realize that if they’re towards the bottom the women they’re likely to attract are likely to be around the same place. We don’t all get a Hollywood ending, and Hollywood itself is unrealistic.

Guys who notice that movies, TV shows, and some books portray an unlikely or unrealistic set of dating and marriage patterns should start to wonder what the “real thing” looks like. The Game isn’t bad, though it is dated, and I expect Tucker Max and Geoffrey Miller’s book Mate to be popular for reasons similar to the ones that made The Game popular.

I’ve also noticed an elegiac sense that a weirdly large number of the “pickup artists” or “Red Pill” (sometimes it’s used as two words, sometimes as one) or “manosphere” guys have about the past, and how back then it was relatively easy to find, date, and marry a woman. Much of this is probably mythological, and I don’t think most of them would be happy marrying at 20 or 24 and having two or three kids by 28 or 29.

Like all generalizations, the stereotype above are riddled with holes and exceptions—see further the oeuvre of John Updike—but I’m examining broad trends rather than specific details. Today almost no one gets married straight out of high school. Routine moves from city to city are normal, and each move often rips someone from the social networks that provide romantic connections. Families play a smaller and smaller role. Twenty-somethings, and especially women, don’t listen to their parents’s romantic advice.

If you don’t have the infrastructure of school, how do you meet lots of new people? Jobs are one possibility but looking for romantic prospects at work has obvious pitfalls. Online dating is another, but people who can’t effectively date offline often aren’t any better on—and are often worse.

Technology matters too. Technologies take a long time—decades, at least—to really reach fruition and for their ripples to be felt throughout societies and cultures. Virtually all big ideas start small.* That’s an important lesson from Where Good Ideas Come From, The Great Stagnation, The Enlightened Economy, and similar books about technological, economic, and social history.

A suite of interrelated technologies around birth control (like hormonal birth control itself, better forms of it, and easy condom distribution and acquisition) are still playing out. Same with antibiotics and vaccines against STIs. VOX offers one way to think about this in “From shame to game in one hundred years: An economic model of the rise in premarital sex and its de-stigmatisation.” It begins:

The last one hundred years have witnessed a revolution in sexual behaviour. In 1900, only 6% of US women would have engaged in premarital sex by the age of 19, compared to 75% today . . . Public acceptance of premarital sex has reacted with a lag.

Culture is still catching up. Pickup, game, and the Redpill, regardless of what you personally think of them, are part of the the cultural catchup. They’re responses from guys frustrated by the way their own efforts fail while some of their peers’s efforts succeed. A lot of women appear less interested in an okay guy with an okay job and an okay but not that exciting or fun life, relative to guys with a different set of qualities. Men invest in what they think women want and women invest in what they think men want, and relative wants have changed over time.

Almost every guy sees or knows at least one guy and often a couple who do spectacularly well with women. Guys who are frustrated or who can’t achieve the romantic life they want start to ask, “What are the successful guys doing that I’m not?” Pickup or game or the Redpill are different strains of systematic answers. All three may have things wrong with them, but all three are better than nothing. Saying “Women are mysterious” or “No one knows what women want” is bullshit, and guys only have to look around to notice it.

Pickup artists and those who read them are responding to a cultural milieu in which most guys get terrible socialization regarding dating and women. Pickup artists are stepping into that gap. They’re trying to answer questions in a concrete way, which most people, including their detractors, aren’t. In a review of Clarisse Thorn’s Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser I wrote:

feminism does very little to describe, let alone evaluate, how micro, day-to-day interactions are structured. Pickup artists, or whatever one may want to call guys who are consciously building their skills at going out and getting women, are describing the specific comments, conversations, styles, and venues women respond to. The pickup artists are saying, “This is how you approach a woman in a bar, this is how you strike up a conversation at the grocery store, and so forth.” In other words, they’re looking at how people actually go about the business of getting laid. Their work is often very detailed, and the overall thrust is toward the effectiveness of getting laid rather than how male-female interactions work in theory. Feminism, in Thorn’s view, appears to be silent, or mostly silent, on the day-to-day interactions.

Who else is doing that? Almost no one. As with virtually any other topic, one can muddle along through trial and error (and mostly error) or one can try to systematically learn about it and apply that learning to the problem domain, along with the learning others have done.

To be sure, the worst of the group if just trying to sell shit, and sell as much of it as possible to fools. The best of the group is saying things that almost no one else is saying.

Max, Miller, and Nils Parker wrote Mate: The Young Man’s Guide To Sex And Dating, which is, among other things, a description of modern dating and a description of why so many guys do it so badly for so long. Confusion reigns, and the book promises to be the sort of fun-but-comprehensive read that can be given to unhappy, puzzled guys who understand something is wrong but don’t know how to fix it.

One strategy in response to new social circumstances is to figure out what you should do to be reasonably successful and what you can do to make yourself more appealing. This is not a male-only question: virtually every issue of Cosmo is about how to attract men, retain men, and deal with female friends and rivals. Another is to blame women, or withdraw from dating, or kill innocents because of your own frustration.

If you think half the population isn’t into you, the problem is with you, not the population. There’s an important similarity to business here: If you start a business and no one wants to buy your products or services, you can blame the market or you can realize that you’re not doing what people want.

It’s easier to blame women than it is to make real changes, and there is a tendency among some of the self-proclaimed “Redpill”-types to do that. Paul Graham says the real secret to making wealth is to “Make something people want.” In dating the real “secret” (which isn’t a secret) is to be a person people like. How to do that can be a whole book’s worth of material.

Blame is easy and improvement is hard. Short guys do have it harder than tall guys—but so what? Go ask a fat girl, or a flat-chested one, how much fun dating is for her, compared to her slenderer or better-endowed competitors. Honesty in those conversations is probably rare, but it is out there: usually in late-night conversations after a couple drinks.

I don’t hate “pickup artists” as a group, though I dislike the term and wish there was something better. Many of the critics are accurate. But so what? criticizing without recognizing the impetus for the development in the first place is attacking the plant while ignoring the roots. This post, like so many of the posts I write, is looking at or attempting to look at the root.

Feminism didn’t come from nowhere. Neither has pickup.

* Which is not to say that all small ideas will automatically become big. Most don’t. But ideas, technologies, practices, and cultures spread much more slowly than is sometimes assumed, especially among the rah-rah tech press.

11 responses

  1. Your essay was linked to in the Red Pill subreddit:

    Above you say this:

    “It’s easier to blame women than it is to make real changes, and there is a tendency among some of the self-proclaimed “Redpill”-types to do that. Paul Graham notes that the real secret to making wealth is to “Make something people want.” In dating the real secret (which isn’t a secret) is to be a person who people like. How to do that can be a whole book’s worth of material.”

    The problem with comparing sex/relationships and money is that trade is not zero-sum whereas sex and relationships are, but we are stuck with economic metaphors for the time being.

    One reason the PUA/Red Pill/manosphere exists is because the one of the consequences sexual revolution has been to allow top males (in looks, personality, etc) to hoard female erotic capital…we’ve created a “winner take all” sort of system when it comes to the distribution of sex and relationships. I do not mean that it’s common for one man to engage in polygamy but rather that, quite simply, a “top man” can easily in this age get 1.5x to 2.5x of the average woman’s “best years” (18 to 28). For instance, if a charismatic bar tender keeps getting into serial years long relationships with women in their 20s when he himself is in his 20s AND 30s, he’s clearly dominating multiple women’s best years which basically amounts to shutting out other men from the dating market.

    I believe that The Red Pill and the manosphere are in part a consequence of a fraction of the men who “lose out” loudly complaining on the web.

    By the way, the chapter titled “The Marriage Market” from the 1994 book “The Moral Animal” by journalist Robert Wright touches on the idea of female erotic capital hoarding (though Mr. Wright doesn’t phrase it as such.)


  2. Jake, you make a lot of good points.

    Indeed, it’s all well and good to criticize traditional pickup (and there are plenty of flaws all around), but what exactly is the alternative? At least guys are trying to improve, that’s the most important thing. Failure, mistakes, putting your foot in your mouth, saying things to women at the wrong time or in the wrong way… it is all part of the process of improvement.

    I agree with your comment that the “red pill” is more often than not all about shirking responsibility and blaming “the system” (that’s why they take that motif from the movie The Matrix after all–because the idea is that the system is rigged).

    However I just want to point out that it is incorrect to conflate pickup with the manosphere. PUAs and that whole movement existed years before the “manosphere” came into being.

    And pickup has always been focused on ways to succeed (really more a subset of “personal development”), whereas the manosphere is primarily about political and social commentary. Thus the manosphere is basically the mirror image of radical feminism (ironic that they hate each others’ guts–although that’s typical of siblings).

    “Up until relatively recently—probably the late 60s / early 70s—it was probably common for most guys to marry a local girl, maybe straight out of high school”

    It’s actually still common. The vast majority of men and women in this country settle into marriage or long term relationships with a partner from their social circle (i.e. school/ work/ neighborhood/ friends of friends etc). The only real difference is that the preliminary “pre-settle/ pre-marriage” period has been extended by 5-10 years, allowing time for casual sex and career stuff.

    Also it’s worth noting that back in the “good old days” there were tons of couples who were dating, accidentally got pregnant, and then rushed into a marriage. A significant % of marriages occurred this way. Let’s not pretend people were angels.

    “and a lot of men and women probably married as virgins”

    This is actually definitely incorrect. It’s been established that for generations, the vast majority of Americans had sex before marriage. You have to go back to a very old time–like the 1900s or 1910s before virginity at marriage is really the “norm”.

    I certainly agree that many young guys have issues in socialization and understanding women, etc. Yet nevertheless, the vast majority of men will eventually have sex, get girlfriends, and get relationships. They may never fuck 20 supermodels in a single weekend (and why that is a serious, serious goal of some guys may be an interesting topic to consider), but they do get laid and get married (mostly through social circles, with little or no actual “game”).

    The Pickup scene was originally for (a) guys who were significant hard cases (i.e. virgins at 28 and so on) and desperately needed a way to get some kind of dating life (a very small number of men, since the vast majority of men, again, get laid and get girlfriends through social circles), and (b) guys who wanted to be real players and wanted effective strategies to reach that elite level (i.e. the sex life of a rock star without actually making a platinum record).

    That’s how pickup started, and that’s how it still is, mostly. It caters to a minority of guys. And the “red pill” caters to a smaller, overlapping minority.


  3. I learned pickup because social circle game was impossible at an all-boys’ boarding school. I very much wanted a relationship, but that wasn’t possible without girls in my social circle.


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